After a week of practice on a hot, dry and dusty Tokyo Olympics cross-country mountain bike course, heavy rains from Typhoon Nepartak transformed the Izu track into a very different affair for the women's event. The changes might have benefitted gold medal winner Jolanda Neff, but had the opposite effect on former world champion Kate Courtney (USA).
The Californian and teammate Haley Batten were outside picks for the medals but ended the day in 15th and ninth, respectively.
Courtney said the course conditions and the last-minute alterations made by the organisation had a major impact on the race.
"It was the riders versus the course out there given how much it changed overnight," Courtney said. "It's tough to underscore how much it changed. They were making changes to the course up until the moment we started."
The changes included adding back the wooden plank on the drop-off that was removed for the men's race, where Mathieu van der Poel crashed heavily in the first lap of that event, saying he was unaware the board would be removed.
Other alterations included closing the A-line at the Joren rock garden along with the entry to the A-line on the Karesansui rock garden, and a new line introduced at the latter.
However, Courtney's problems started well before those obstacles.
"It went south from the beginning. I had a tough start, I actually got my pedal stuck in another girl's wheel," she said. "I really was not in the position I wanted to be in from the beginning, and from there I just focused on riding as smooth and as smart as I could.
"It wasn't my best race, but I think there's no other event where you cross the line in a less than ideal position, and still feel really honoured and humbled to be here representing your country and representing your family, and for me, it's just been really an honour to be here in the first place.
"I really respect the riders, Jolanda [Neff] is one of the best technical riders in the field. She's someone who probably benefited from the conditions and is really able to be adaptable and manage those.
"Jolanda's been dominant for so many years in the sport, it's easy to cheer for someone when they're on top and write them off when they're not. She's a true champion and someone I think really deserved this result. I'm really happy to see her pull off a ride she'll be celebrating for a long time to come."
Like Neff, Courtney has been at the top of the sport and then encountered challenging times. Neff had a horrific crash in December 2019, that left her with a ruptured spleen and punctured lung. The postponement of the Olympics to 2021 helped her recover from that, but then she broke her hand in the Leogang World Cup in June.
Courtney won the world title in 2018 at 22, then the overall World Cup in 2019 but then the COVID-19 pandemic stopped almost all of the MTB events in 2020. Then, after a fourth place in the Albstadt World Cup, Courtney crashed in Nové Město and fractured her wrist.
The 25-year-old admitted that the uncertainties presented by the pandemic had added to the stress leading up to the Olympics and she has not been at her best.
"It's definitely been a series of tough events for me," Courtney said. "I've been off the pace from where I want to be riding - that's no one's fault but my own. For me, it's about resetting and keep trying to get close to the front of these races again. I know I'm capable of doing that and I just have to figure out how to make that happen."
Batten to the future
In contrast to Courtney's disappointment, 22-year-old Haley Batten was overjoyed to take a top-10 in her first Olympic Games and found the muddy course to her liking, having trained extensively in British Columbia.
"I loved this a lot more than the loose stuff in the pre-ride," Batten said. "I was having a blast out there. The chaos and the unpredictability is kind of how 2020 and 2021 have been going. I just embraced that and had a lot of fun out there. I go to school in Squamish, BC so part of me loves those conditions, it's a lot of fun and it's true mountain biking.
"This course is so technical and there's also very minimal passing. On the start loop, I was a little farther back than I hoped. Luckily I felt strong and I moved forward throughout the race. I'm happy about it, a top 10 is a great first Olympics - I'm proud of that."
Having taken silver and bronze in the Albstadt and Nove Mesto World Cups and now a ninth place in the Olympics, Batten has her focus on the future - to the next Olympics in Paris in 2024, and Los Angeles 2028.
"I trained to get a medal now or in the future, I raced my absolute best and I'm super happy with that and I think my eyes are on the future and moving up all the way.
"I have no words to explain - it's so emotional and incredible, it's such a special experience. I felt so much love and support from the people around me and my family. It's one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had."
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Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Managing Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. As former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks. Laura's beat is anti-doping, UCI governance and data analysis.